Resolution switching: Different sizes

So, what is the problem that we want to solve with resolution switching? We want to display identical image content, just larger or smaller depending on the device — this is the situation we have with the second content image in our example. The standard <img> element traditionally only lets you point the browser to a single source file:

<img src="elva-fairy-800w.jpg" alt="Elva dressed as a fairy">

We can however use two new attributes — srcset and sizes — to provide several additional source images along with hints to help the browser pick the right one. You can see an example of this in our responsive.html example on Github (see also the source code):

<img srcset="elva-fairy-480w.jpg 480w,
             elva-fairy-800w.jpg 800w"
     sizes="(max-width: 600px) 480px,
     alt="Elva dressed as a fairy">

The srcset and sizes attributes look complicated, but they’re not too hard to understand if you format them as shown above, with a different part of the attribute value on each line. Each value contains a comma-separated list, and each part of those lists is made up of three sub-parts. Let’s run through the contents of each now:

srcset defines the set of images we will allow the browser to choose between, and what size each image is. Each set of image information is separated from the previous one by a comma. For each one, we write:

  1. An image filename (elva-fairy-480w.jpg)
  2. A space
  3. The image’s intrinsic width in pixels (480w) — note that this uses the w unit, not px as you might expect. This is the image’s real size, which can be found by inspecting the image file on your computer (for example, on a Mac you can select the image in Finder and press Cmd + I to bring up the info screen).

sizes defines a set of media conditions (e.g. screen widths) and indicates what image size would be best to choose, when certain media conditions are true — these are the hints we talked about earlier. In this case, before each comma we write:

  1. A media condition ((max-width:600px)) — you’ll learn more about these in the CSS topic, but for now let’s just say that a media condition describes a possible state that the screen can be in. In this case, we are saying “when the viewport width is 600 pixels or less”.
  2. A space
  3. The width of the slot the image will fill when the media condition is true (480px)

Note: For the slot width, you may provide an absolute length (px, em) or a length relative to the viewport (vw), but not percentages. You may have noticed that the last slot width has no media condition (this is the default that is chosen when none of the media conditions are true). The browser ignores everything after the first matching condition, so be careful how you order the media conditions.

So, with these attributes in place, the browser will:

  1. Look at its device width.
  2. Work out which media condition in the sizes list is the first one to be true.
  3. Look at the slot size given to that media query.
  4. Load the image referenced in the srcset list that has the same size as the slot or, if there isn’t one, the first image that is bigger than the chosen slot size.

And that’s it! At this point, if a supporting browser with a viewport width of 480px loads the page, the (max-width: 600px) media condition will be true, and so the browser chooses the 480px slot. The elva-fairy-480w.jpg will be loaded, as its inherent width (480w) is closest to the slot size. The 800px picture is 128KB on disk, whereas the 480px version is only 63KB — a saving of 65KB. Now, imagine if this was a page that had many pictures on it. Using this technique could save mobile users a lot of bandwidth.

Leave a Reply